Congress authorized the formation of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in 1978 and designed the park to preserve the Louisiana’s history as well as its natural history. It is located at different sites. across southern Louisiana.
The Prairie Acadian Cultural Center at Eunice interprets the culture of the Acadians who settled in southwest Louisiana at the end of the eighteenth century. More can be learned about the Acadians, their history, their customs–both historical and contemporary, and their language at the Acadians Cultural Center in Lafayette. A visitor center offers exhibits the films, music, folklife that grew out of the history and architecture of the French Quarter.
The Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, southeast of New Orleans, is dedicated to history of 1815 the Battle of New Orleans. The Wetlands Acadian Center at Thibodaux sheds light on bayou culture and offers airboat tours of Bayou Lafourche.
The Barataria Preserve, located on 23,000 acres ten miles south of New Orleans and on either side of Bayou des Familles and extending west to Lake Salvador, is dedicated to an understanding of the delta landscape, how it was formed, where in the landscape vegetation took root, and the wildlife that populates it.
Hike the trails in the Barataria Preserve of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and you will cross a series of forest zones. What grows in where and who lives in which zone is governed by its elevation.
The Bayou Coquille Trail will take you across the natural levee and into the swamp forest to the very edge of the marsh. The Marsh Overlook Trail will take you across the marsh to the edge of a canal. This is the western backswamp, extending clear out to Lakes Cataouatche and Salvador, fresh and floating–maidencane thick mats, spikerush thin mats, and wax myrtle thickets. Spikes of giant cut grass crowd the near edge before giving away to the swamp.
Every kind of freshwater fish imaginable swims in the marsh–gars, shad, shiner, minnows, killifish, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, and sunfishes. Only the cats are missing. It is a nursery for estuarine shrimp, crabs, oysters, and fish. The night air is alive with the sound of frogs-green treefrogs, squirrel treefrogs, cricket frogs, bronze frogs, pig frogs, bullfrogs, and leopard frogs. Water snakes–cottonmouths, ribbon snakes, green water snakes, broad-banded water snakes, slither through the reeds. The biggest reptile, the alligator, drifts through the marsh, only its snout and eyes above water.
Herons, egrets, ibis, moorhens, purple gallinules, water pipits, and black-necked stilts wade along the edges, stabbing the water, hoping to catch a fish. Terns, gulls, and pelicans dive for their fish. Birds with a taste for insects–yellow-bellied cuckoos, warblers, woodpeckers, gnatcatchers, and swamp sparrows–are attracted to the forests, but the marsh attracts red-winged blackbirds, boat-tailed grackles, and common yellowthroats. Waterfowl winter in the ponds.
Cypress, tupelo, and pumpkin ash tree the swamp. Underneath grow buttonbush, pennyworts, lizards tail, and giant blue iris. Here and there swamp red maple takes root in decayed leaf litter corralled by cypress knees, but it’s more comfortable on the backslope with Nuttall oak, Carolina ash, American elm, and sweet gum, where the elevation is higher and the soil dryer. Dwarf palmetto, water pimpernel, and royal fern hug the ground beneath the canopy. Few fish venture into the swamp, but all the frogs that inhabit the marsh are found in the swamp along with the snakes and skinks and the occasional alligator. The prothonotary warbler nests low over the swamp.
Live oak, hackberry, laurel oak, and water oak anchor the crown of the ridge, the highest and driest region of the landscape, where violets, forget-me-nots, and yellowtops color the understory. Warblers and vireos, on their way elsewhere, stop and rest and feed in to whole of the forest. Buntings can be found feeding on the ground, summer tanagers can be heard calling high from the crown. The ruby-throated hummingbird sips nectar from the trumpet vine. Mammals as diverse as raccoons, mink, otters, flying squirrels, marsh rice rats, coyote, and deer take advantage of the entire landscape–marsh, swamp, and forest.
To the east, cross Bayou Familles and pick up the Ring Levee Trail, which will take you across the ridge and into the backswamp. Bayou des Familles itself has silted in and grown so narrow and so shallow that cypress and tupelo have germinated on its mud flats. The broad east bank of the river, once the river itself now filled with sediment and evolved into a wide front slope, hosts a mixed bottomland forest–green ash, elderberry, swamp red maple, green hawthorne, sweet gum, hackberry, elm, and water oak–and a pecan orchard. Dwarf palmetto, rough dogwood, trumpet-creeper, shield fern, and buttonbush pack the understory. Again, a live oak forest, broader than the forest on the west bank, occupies the crest of the natural levee. The landscape undulates in its long descent to the backswamp. Mixed hardwoods grow on the highest and driest land, then red maples on slightly wetter soil, then the cypress and tupelo. But wait, there is another level, an island almost, surrounded by cypress and tupelo, long and curved, following a bend in the bayou, high enough for hardwoods and low enough for cypress.
Last week, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, which put into law the 26 million acre National Landscape Conservation System, preserved 1,000 miles of scenic rivers, added 2 million acres of new wilderness across nine states, transferred 3,000 acres to the Barataria Preserve, and authorized the park to buy 5,857 acres of adjacent land from willing sellers.
[i] Muth, David, “Historic Flora and Fauna of the Old Barataria-Des Familles Distributary,” in Swanson, Betty, Terre Haute de Barataria, Gretna, Louisiana: Jefferson Parish Historical Commission, 1991, Chapter 1; Swarzenski, Christopher M., “Resurvey of Quality of Surface water and Bottom Material of the Barataria Preserve of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana, 199-2000,” Baton Rouge: U.S. Geological Survey, Water-Resources Investigations Report 03-4038 in Cooperation with the National Park Service, 2004, 2, http://la.water.usgs.gov/pdfs/WRI_03-4038.pdf.